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Film

How diverse is the German film industry?

The Oscar nominations have sparked a debate on diversity in US film with #OscarsSoWhite. In Germany, actors with foreign backgrounds also complain they are often casted for very limited roles.

Sibel Kekilli, Copyright: Getty Images

Actress Sibel Kekilli says she doesn't want to simply be typecast into stereotypical migrant roles

"I can summarize the roles that I get offered in one word: wogs," Tayfun Bademsoy says sarcastically in an interview with DW. He has been working as an actor in Germany for 36 years now. Bademsoy has featured in films by director Dominik Graf and in several episodes of the very popular crime series "Tatort." The actor was born in Turkey and moved to Berlin with his parents at the age of 10 - he speaks fluent German without an accent.

Actor Tayfun Bademsoy, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Eventpress Mueller-Stauffenberg

Actor Tayfun Bademsoy

However, he constantly gets requests to play a grocer, an Islamist or a terrorist. He often asks himself why he cannot be a lawyer or an engineer. He told DW that apart from a few exceptions, not much has changed in his cliché-filled occupation in recent decades in Germany.

Only few escape the cliché

One of the exceptions, however, is Sibel Kekilli, who also has Turkish roots. The actress is best known for the 2004 surprise hit "Head-On" (German: Gegen die Wand) by director Fatih Akin. Since then she has been a part of several international feature film productions, most recently in the role of Shae in the US series "Game of Thrones."

Kekilli has received awards for a lot of her roles, including the German Television Award. During her acceptance speech in 2010, she made an appeal for more diverse role offers. She said there was a lack of good roles, even though she was not really picky about which characters to play on screen.

In interviews she has stressed many times that she would not let herself be reduced to stereotypical immigrant roles. Kekilli is one of the few who has been able to escape the cliché - since 2010, she has been playing the role of the "German" detective Sarah Brandt in c "Tatort."

Elyas M'Barek is another exception in the German film industry. The son of an Austrian mother and a Tunisian father, he played a bank robber named Zecki Müller in the German hit film "Fack ju Göhte," and he's the heartthrob in romantic comedies like "Dream Girls" (2015), although his characters did not have a foreign background.

"Fack ju Göhte 2," in which M'Barek also plays the lead role, was the most successful German film of the past year.

Elyas M'Barek in Fack ju Göhte 2, Copyright: 2015 Constantin Film Verleih GmbH/Christoph Assmann.2015 Constantin Film Verleih GmbH/Christoph Assmann.

"Fack ju Göhte 2," starring Elyas M'Barek, was among the most successful German films of the past year

Twelfth role as a Polish car thief

For Bademsoy, Kekilli and M'Barek do not represent the reality of the German film and television industry. "If you turn on the television, it does not reflect the reality," he says.

A few actors with foreign backgrounds have interesting roles, the rest are unemployed, he adds. According to Bademsoy there is "strong discrimination" in the industry, and it begins with the script. He says if it is not specifically stated that the role should be played by a Turk or a Russian, then actors with a foreign background only have a little chance to get it.

That's a problem that Rudolf Oshege knows only too well. He is an acting agent and has been representing various actors with foreign backgrounds for more than 15 years. Even Oshege says that many of his clients only get stereotypical role offers.

In an interview with DW, he said that he had represented a Polish actor who gave up after his 12th role as car thief and went back to his home country. "These actors do not appear in 'normal' roles. Why, for example, do we never see a secretary in an office played by a Polish actress with an accent?"

Lack of diversity 'just happens'

Almost every fifth German has a foreign background. But reliable figures on the proportion of immigrants in German cinema films or TV hardly exist. If you look at the cast lists of German evening series or prime-time TV movies, the proportion of actors with foreign backgrounds is far below 20 percent.

"This is not on purpose or deliberate," says Oshege, "But it just happens. Many of those responsible agree with me that we need change, but ultimately nothing happens."

He says he knows many directors and those responsible for selecting the cast who promote immigration and volunteer with refugees in their free time, but Oshege says they do not bring this awareness of diversity to their jobs.

A boycott for German film awards?

Actress Mo Asumang, Copyright: Getty Images/A. Rentz

Mo Asumang says the film industry needs to be role model of integration

The German presenter and actress Mo Asumang says there is a lack of willingness of the film industry to be a role model in terms of integration. Asumang's career began in 1997 as a presenter of en erotic show on German television.

"This niche was probably considered appropriate for an Afro-German. But I have not been asked to present a news show," she says. Asumang has also been working as an actress; her biggest role was that of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" (2010). But even that has not saved her from cliché role offers.

"While dubbing films or TV series I have often been asked to play judges or lawyers because of my deep voice," says Asumang. "I would love such a role as an actress as well, but I cannot imagine that anyone would cast me as a judge on German television."

Looking at the controversy surrounding this year's Oscar nominations, Asumang says there is no need for a boycott of German film awards. However, a discussion about the self-image of Germany and its media landscape is very well needed right now, especially in the context of the refugee debate.

Rudolf Oshege also advocates such a debate, but the experienced agent is less optimistic. He thinks it will take another 30 years in Germany for, say, the smart doctor of hospital drama to be an Iranian and the firefighter to be of Vietnamese background.

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